The Bible Riots of 1844

An item at Daily Kos shows that politicians whipping up religious hysteria are nothing new. Like the modern Religious Right, ultraconservative Protestant leaders of the nineteenth century insisted the United States was a “Christian nation.” Only one catch: by “Christian” they really meant “Protestant.”

There was actually rioting in Philadelphia caused by tensions between Protestants and Catholics. At the time, Protestant religious doctrine was part of the daily school activities. The school day began with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, readings from the King James Version of the Bible, and often group singing of Protestant hymns. In addition, the Bible was frequently used as a textbook in spelling classes and to teach other secular subjects.

Bible reading occurred “without comment.” The teacher simply read a set number of verses – usually 10 – without elaborating or interpreting them. Most Protestant groups found the practice acceptable, but Catholics considered the practice alien and heretical.

Some textbooks had a clear anti-Catholic bias. One even referred to the pope as the anti-Christ. Catholic clergy finally began planning a protest.

In 1842 Philadelphia bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick approached the Board of School Controllers to ask that the blatantly anti-Catholic books be removed. Kenrick also requested that Catholic students be permitted to use their own Bibles – the Douay version – during morning devotionals.

In February 1844, a rumor started that a school director in the heavily Catholic north Philadelphia suburb of Kensington had ordered a teacher to suspend Bible readings. In reality the director, Hugh Clark, had merely suggested a temporary suspension of the devotionals to a principal who complained that allowing Catholic children to leave every morning was disruptive. In Clark’s view the religious exercises could be resumed once a plan was worked out that allowed the Catholic students to leave peacefully.

Another school director, Henry Moore, a strident evangelical Protestant, began whipping up hysteria. A series of rallies were quickly organized to “save the Bible” (does this sound familiar?).

Pennsylvania’s leading anti-Catholic political unit, the American Republican Party (ARP), quickly added a plank to its platform reading, “Resolved, that the Bible, without note or comment, is not sectarian – that it is the fountainhead of all morality and all good government, and should be used in our public schools as a reading book.” Most “Save the Bible” rallies were organized by the ARP.

The conflicts boiled over into full riots, in which several people were killed.

Unfortunately politicians are still exploiting religious differences for their own benefit.

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